Since the arrival of the coalition 9 or so months ago, I have been getting increasingly fed up with the tone of much of the media towards the changes that are being forced through. When I write “media”, I mean, by and large, the Newcastle Journal and it’s online publication, www.nebusiness.co.uk.
Now, I must confess, as a some time columnist and blogger for the Journal, generally I am a supporter of it as a publication. Indeed, at my insistence, BHP’s Darlington office is still a subscriber to the paper, Monday to Friday. It’s fantastic to have a strong regional paper that has a focus that is utterly divorced from London. But the anti-coalition propaganda in the news pages, which is rarely coupled with an equivalent balancing view, has really been getting on my wick recently. I know that the north east is very reliant on public spending, and that wasn’t helped by the policies of the last government and some of the activities of ONE Northeast. But you kinda have to get to a point eventually where you say, ‘let’s just get on with it’, don’t you?
I’ll give you one example. A couple of weeks ago, there was a 2 page spread in the Journal about Vince Cable ordering the sell off of half a dozen or so patches of real estate, mostly in and around Tyneside. It’s funny how these policies seemed to be ordered by Vince Cable. Sometimes I wonder how he has the time. Perhaps because he’s spent most of his life working in the private sector. Anyway, the article listed sites like what was Westgate House, the Tyne Tower, a business park or two, and so on. They were described as “the jewels in the crown”, which I thought was a funny way to describe relatively plain patches of land in a region that includes Durham Cathedral, the Sage, Hadrian’s Wall and all sorts of other wonderful places.
At the foot of the article, there was a box that listed these jewels and the buyers that were being lined up, most of whom were other public sector organisations (for example, Gateshead Council, which was apparently going to be acquiring the Tyne Tower). So actually, these sites weren’t about to be sold off to the highest bidder, but were to remain in public ownership.
But even if they were to be sold off to the highest bidder: what would be wrong with that? A very dear friend of mine who is a big noise at one of the region’s most prominent ‘grey sector’ organisations (the grey sector being organisations that are notionally private sector but rely for most if not all of their income on public funding) said to me a couple of months ago that we really must try to prevent the government from selling off ONE Northeast’s property portfolio because we can’t let the region lose these valuable assets. Why? What’s going to happen if we do?
Had we not knocked Westgate House down, perhaps it would have sailed off down the Tyne and eventually rocked up on the Norwegian shore. Some American investor might perhaps have uprooted the Tyne Tower and carted it off to Texas, leaving a gaping hole in the ground and perhaps exposing the earth’s mantle beneath (just imagine the health and safety implications). Coming from East Anglia, this is a subject that is close to my heart. On the Today Programme this very morning, there was a piece about the evaporation of peat from the fens (well, not evaporation as such, it just dries and blows into the Wash). Then there are the beaches of Norfolk and Suffolk that drift inevitably towards the Thames estuary. In the North East though, money is tight and land is in short supply, hence the furore.
But friends, have I just started to notice a change in the editorial tone at The Journal? On Monday, the lead in the business pages was the appointment of Paul Walker as chairman of the North East LEP. Today, there’s another piece about Ray Mallon and Steve Gibson proposing an enterprise zone or two for Teesside. Now THAT is what I call a public/private partnership. Perhaps, just perhaps, as things start to develop, we can start to comment on what’s going to happen, not perpetually hark back to an era that’s been lost. That would be so much more constructive.
What I do blame the current administration for is the limbo that we’ve all been left in since September. Ever since party conference season, the Cuts have been the default lead news item, occasionally being displaced by the liberation of Egypt or the cocaine habit of a soap opera star. This ill-planned approach left us with a 6 week hole in the autumn until George Osborne unveiled his plans at the end of October, during which time the economy ground to a halt. Genius. And then we found that actually he didn’t really have concrete plans yet. We are going to have to wait for the detail. Fabulous. So in the 6 months since, we’ve been bombarded with neverending whinging about how this programme is too valuable to lose to the Cuts, or that institution will have to close because of the Cuts.
Despite the valiant words of Ed Miliband, this is not a party politics matter. I may be a free market supporter, but I am not a Tory. In fact, I only voted Tory for the first time in my life last time because I was so desperate to see anyone but Labour win Darlington. Although I have to say in the last few months, our Jenny has started to grow on me (don’t tell Mr Wharton that). And not so much like a fungus, either. If it wasn’t Vince that was ordering the sell off, someone else would have had to. And before we forget, just what was ONE Northeast doing acquiring all that land in the first place? And having acquired Westgate House and knocked it down, much to the delight of Kevin McLeod, did they actually have any plans for the site? Because it still looks like piles of rubble to me, and we’re now, what, four years or so on from its demolition? As ever, I don’t mean to criticse. I only enquire and comment…